Byzantine Matters

BY AVERIL CAMERON

Professor Cameron’s short book has evolved from several lectures presented at Princeton, the Institute of Classical Studies, London and other seminars including the annual symposium of the Society for the Promotion of Byzantine Studies. She argues for both greater efforts and a more flexible approach to the study of Byzantium, particularly by Western European academics. She argues that the history of this complex civilisation, founded by Greek colonists long before the Roman Emperor Constantine and encompassing modern Turkey and territories around the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean, has been neglected and its legacy distorted.

In a brief introduction, Professor Cameron points out the difficulties of both the study of the culture and the political and historical influences on the historiography. Difficult specialist language and technical skills together with a lack of identification by Anglo-Saxon historians with their own past have meant that centres of study have been elsewhere in Europe, including of course Greece. Contemporary politics play their part in a distortion of the available facts. The author refers to a recent officially supported Russian TV programme on the subject which purported to show that Russia is the heir to Byzantium and implying an anti-Western message.

Professor Cameron laments the fact that, despite the length of the Empire from Constantine’s decision to make his capital on the site of modern Istanbul in AD330 to the final take-over by Ottomans in 1453, Byzantium’s complexities have rarely been discussed in western historiography. Gibbon dismissed the political changes and governance of its final eight centuries as too boring to be discussed and contrasted it unfavourably with the Roman Empire. Elsewhere focus has been on the work of a privileged elite or the exoticism of its art. ‘Byzantine’ is routinely used as shorthand for complicated and inefficient bureaucracy.

Professor Cameron identifies rhetoric of inevitable decline and victimhood highlighted by the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and worsening relations with Western Europe. The final services at the Orthodox Hagias Sophia, attended by the Byzantine Emperor, the night before the final capture of Constantinople in 1453 are seen as adding a full-stop.

The apparent Greek ‘ownership’ of Byzantium, despite a mixed population and the use of many languages, the role of Christian Orthodoxy and its relationship with Catholic Italy and the dominance of a past study of Byzantine art from a western European perspective are all identified as reasons for Byzantium to be considered as a fringe study subject. This contrasts significantly with studies of the Roman Empire. The author argues that the study of Byzantium is an important contribution to relationships between West and East, different branches of Christianity, Christianity and Islam.

Professor Cameron is a former Warden of Keble College, Oxford and Oxford Professor Emeritus of late antique and Byzantine history. This book poses some important questions and aims to challenge Anglo-Saxon academics to extend or initiate a flexible approach to the detailed study of Byzantium and include it in the University curriculum. I imagine that the publishers, Princeton University Press, would like it to be reviewed by a distinguished OU academic. It may well have been. However on this occasion it has fallen into the hands of an OUHS member whose limited post graduate studies have been restricted to nineteenth and twentieth century social history. As a member of my family remarked ‘A review of this book is well above your pay grade!’ Despite this I found the subject fascinating and Professor Cameron’s arguments most persuasive. It has certainly inspired me to investigate the subject and to try to read some of the introductory texts recommended by her (including her own The Byzantines (Oxford, UK:Blackwell,2006). If you are interested in Byzantium please do not restrict your reading to so-called ‘research’ on line (after reading Byzantine Matters Wikipedia was a real let-down). The book has three small maps which illustrate the changes over the centuries and a few black and white photographs and reproductions.

As student historians we all agree that history is important. Professor Cameron argues that Byzantium is central to debates on the nature of the Middle East, Eastern European and Western relationship both in terms of religion and culture. The final dramatic fifteenth century fall of the Empire may seem long ago but its complex history is still relevant in today’s politics.

Rosemary Conely
Copyright © Open University History Society, 2015